Now that I have run two (2) whole marathons, I am a qualified marathon expert. Or at least, somewhat knowledgeable. Okay, I am still an idiot who doesn’t know anything. But now that I have run two marathons, I can at least compare them. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to run an Olympic qualifying marathon. Also, if you’re looking to run an Olympic qualifying marathon, you are very much on the wrong blog.
In this post, I’m going to take a close look at the two 26.2-mile races I’ve run in my very short life as a marathon runner: the 2018 TCS NYC Marathon and the 2019 Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon. I’m kind of a numbers nerd, and I thought this could be a fun way of comparing the two training cycles and races – examining what I did better, what I could still do better, and how luck and life circumstances played a role. Let’s have some fun! Or maybe it’ll just be me who has fun!
First, there are two good reasons for both my PR and BQ worth mentioning:
- I ran the 2018 NYC Marathon (my first marathon) at what I would call a medium effort. My pace was all over the place and I didn’t put in a real effort until the last six miles. The middle third especially was way too easy a pace for what I was capable of (I just got scurred). So, my time was relatively easy to improve.
- I’ll be 45 years old for the 2020 Boston Marathon. The BQ standard for 45-49 women (3:50) is 10 minutes easier than for 40-44 women (3:40). And I BQ’d by just 1:55. In other words, if I had been born just one year later (but somehow been the same person), I would have missed a BQ by 8:05.
It’s important to mention these things because they don’t pertain to everyone and I don’t want to make it seem like the PR/BQ was some kind of crazy miracle. My specific circumstances helped make it happen.
There are a bunch of reasons why the NJ Marathon went better. First, my training. I trained better and I rested better. This was all helped by the fact that I did not have a full time job while training for NJ (I’ve been freelancing as a photographer), while I did have a full time day job (10am-7pm, M-F) while training for NYC. This was very much a factor in a better training cycle: I had more time to train and more time to sleep.
Here’s an interesting look at some of the numbers in the two training cycles. I made this chart all by myself in Microsoft Word using my favorite font of late, Futura:
- More miles. In the 16 weeks leading up to NJ compared to NYC, I ran a total of 113.9 more miles: 7.12 more miles each week, about a mile more each day. This was just a slight increase – I think too much more of a jump would have been overdoing it. (There was a time when I thought I might end up averaging 50 miles a week for NJ, but toward the end, I opted to cut down on runs rather than extend them based on how I felt.)
- I slowed down. I ran four easy runs a week: three shorter and one long. I slowed way down on all of these compared to training for NYC, often by a whole minute per mile. This helped me recover faster, and I got to spend more time on my feet without overextending myself.
- I sped up. At the same time, I ran more interval workouts and more tempo runs for NJ – one of each a week. All of my interval workouts involved faster paces: marathon pace, half marathon pace, 10K pace, 5K pace, sometimes even faster. For the most part, these went really well because I took it so easy on my easy days! These runs also boosted my confidence, especially the longer marathon pace tempo runs, which were invaluable and that I did not do in my NYC training – one of my only complaints about the NYRR Virtual Training Program.
- More strength training. I did more upper and lower body workouts at home, mostly using 8/10/15 lb. free weights. I generally did upper body workouts on easy run days and lower body workouts on harder run days. Easy days easy, hard days hard. I really incorporated that philosophy into my training for NJ.
- Better warm up. In training for NJ, I was diligent in making sure I properly warmed up before my runs. I went from doing a few minutes of lunges and squats to doing at least a 15 minute routine incorporating all of the PT exercises I learned at Finish Line, followed by a series of lunges, squats, and about ten other dynamic stretches. I did this six days a week before every run. I like to think this played a big part in having fewer sore muscles this time around.
- More sleep. I wear my Garmin to bed and track my sleeping hours. I always like to see how much I alternate between light and deep sleep each night. Averaging almost an hour more a night while training for NJ really helped. Plus, I just feel so much better.
As a result of probably all of those things, I was injured/sore way less often this time. I never wore my calf sleeves once! I also never got sick at all, thank the lord.
- 20+ mile long runs. I didn’t run any more 20+ mile runs this time – each training cycle had me do one 20 miler and one 22 miler. Actually, there was supposed to be one more 20+ run for NJ but it was the day I ran half of it with the Harriers to the lunch place in Queens and I only ran 17 that day, chalking it up to a loss.
- Other races. While I ran two more races while training for NYC, I’m not sure how much this affected anything. I’m still trying to determine just how many shorter races are good to run while marathon training. On one hand, I love racing and don’t want to only run two a year. And I think they really help in getting me to be able to sustain faster paces. On the other hand, I don’t like to run too many, because then they begin to interfere with when I do my long runs, not to mention the recovery necessary. I think 1-2 shorter races a month is realistic.
- My weight. Not only did I not lose weight to set a PR, I actually gained two pounds from NYC Marathon race day to NJ Marathon race day. (This could be due in part to more strength training and using heavier weights for the NJ cycle.) I track my weight like I do my sleep: I weigh myself first thing every morning. This might make me seem obsessive but in reality, it’s actually the opposite – it makes me realize just how much weight fluctuates from day to day so I don’t wind up stressing over it. But I want to stay within a certain range and this is the best way for me to do that. I was about the same weight through the two cycles, maybe averaging 1-3 pounds more while training for NJ, a minimal amount that I barely noticed. Could I have run even faster if I had lost weight? Maybe? But I think it’s worth noting: I did not have to lose ten pounds or any pounds in order to cut 12 minutes from my marathon time.
There were some major and minor differences in how each race compared – not only from a performance standpoint but terrain, elevation, and more. Let’s analyze this to death, shall we?
Starting with the obvious: from NYC to NJ, I improved my time by 12 minutes 2 seconds and my pace by 28 seconds a mile.
In both races, my “official” pace (based on when I crossed the timing mats) differed from my average pace showing on my Garmin. This is because I wound up running more than 26.2 miles in each race: 0.26 miles more in NYC and 0.31 miles more in NJ. As much as I tried to take inner curves and run straight tangents, I clearly did just as bad a job of it both times. And I guess natural GPS fluctuations played a part as well.
This was one of the most frustrating things about both races: I finished NYC with an average “9:04” pace showing on my watch and NJ with an average “8:36” pace showing on my watch. In each case, by the end I knew this wasn’t accurate given the longer distance also showing on my watch. In both races, my official pace was slower by six seconds a mile.
Knowing that this happened in NYC, I wish I had run NJ with a slightly faster goal pace on my Garmin. Either that or plugged in a 26.5 mile race into my “predicted finish time” field so that it would assume I was running a longer race. Or, do what I should have done and used Race Screen’s GPS correcting function at each timing mat, something I will test in races this summer before running NYC again this fall.
I included my fastest 10K and half efforts as an addendum mainly to show how far off I was in NYC from my best times. Obviously, you’re going to run the first half of a marathon slower than a half marathon race, but 15 minutes slower? Seeing those numbers now, I honestly can’t believe how much I held back in NYC. I was so afraid of burning out – much more than I needed to be.
NJ is a very flat course. The 112 ft. of elevation recorded by my Garmin was due to a few small bridges on the course, but nothing at all like NYC’s Verrazzano or Queensboro bridges. For NYC, you really have to prepare for those bigger hills and know your pace will probably slow on them. In NJ, you just have to focus on being consistent, as there’s not much to break up your pace other than some right angle turns.
Speaking of being consistent, I was surprised to see my half splits in NJ were almost identical: only three seconds separated my first and second halves! I hadn’t meant to do this – if anything, I’d wanted to significantly speed up in the second half. At least by more than three seconds. Still, I’m pretty happy about the consistency with my pace. The only real difference is that in the first two thirds I was fighting to slow down and in the last third I was fighting to speed up.
Another interesting thing about my NJ results: at the 10K mark, I was in 1083rd place. By the finish, I was in 810th place. And I was pretty much running the same pace the whole time. It looks like 36 people may have dropped out by the finish, but this still means that a lot of people had slowed down throughout the race. Sometimes I forget that you can pass people on a race course without even speeding up – they just have to slow down, and voila: you’ve passed them.
I also included my weight (the insignificant 2 lb. gain), the weather (nearly identical start time temps, just sunnier in NYC), and race start time. That last one was a pretty big difference: I’m used to starting my runs around 7:30 or 8:00 am, so the NJ start felt a lot more natural to me. Starting a 26.2 mile run at 10 in the morning, on the other hand? Much less so. Unfortunately, that’s what it is in NYC, unless I ever start with the elites, and even then it’s 9:10 am. (Also, I will never start with the elites.)
I’m not sure which was worse: having over two hours from arriving at the start village until I crossed the start (NYC) or having less than 45 minutes between the two (NJ). I guess NYC was the much more relaxed start given how much time we had to sit around. But planning breakfast and snacks is a little harder. While the NJ start village was hectic and hurried, the timing of when I ate everything that morning felt better.
Finally, here’s a fun little graph comparison showing the differences in my pace range in the two races: NYC on the left, NJ on the right. I had to do a bit of manipulating in Photoshop to get the corresponding paces to line up and to better show the comparison. Look at how much more consistent my pace was in NJ:
Because you can never have too many graphs, here’s another version of the same thing below. Again, I manipulated the size of the graphs to have them better compare and placed red lines between the corresponding paces. The one huge dip in NYC was the Queensboro Bridge because all signal was lost there – I wasn’t actually running a 13:00 pace. Maybe more like 9:45-10:00 at the slowest, but I’ll never know. All I remember is that a bird shat on my arm on that bridge.
In NJ, the slight dip and spike in mile 5 were when I stopped to put my phone away and then sped up to make up for it. You can also see how I faltered a bit between miles 20-22 and then tried so hard to come back, finally speeding up at the very end.
Finally, I just felt so much more confident running NJ. Not only did I already know what running 26.2 (or 26.4, I guess) miles felt like, I had a solid block of training behind me. I had run several marathon pace tempo runs. I had practiced fueling, hydration, and so much more. I just felt better in every single way.
Knowing what I now know, I can’t wait to see how training goes this summer for the 2019 NYC Marathon. I can’t yet make any kind of prediction as to how fast I can run it, but I’m looking to improve my time. I’m not sure I can take off another 12 minutes, but who knows. After all, I am now a qualified marathon expert.